Health & Grooming

The scent sorcerer

Dazzling in his virtuosity, Jean-Claude Ellena is one of the greatest living perfumers. On the eve of his latest launch, the Hermès nose meets Lucia van der Post.

October 02 2011
Lucia van der Post

Jean-Claude Ellena, in-house “perfume composer” at Hermès since 2004, is the professional perfumers’ perfumer. Speak to insiders, those who understand and love the world of fragrance, and to them Ellena is the rock star of the scent world, out there way ahead of the pack with only Dominique Ropion (who has created scents for Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior and Frédéric Malle, among others) joining him in the elevated pantheon of the greats.

It’s the elegance of his perfumes that his fans cite as the reason for their devotion. They have the minimalism of a Japanese haiku, all the sparkling clarity of the spare and unadorned. “He can tempt me into areas of the olfactory world that otherwise I wouldn’t dream of touching,” says Michael Donovan, a connoisseur who represents a number of perfume companies (though not Hermès) and is one of Ellena’s avid fans, “because he brings his lightness and his elegance to any style of perfume he chooses to make.” He is to perfume what Mozart is to music: precocious in his youth, dazzling in his virtuosity; above all, incapable of vulgarity or excess.

Ellena’s father was a “nose”; so, too, are his brother and his daughter, Céline. He grew up in Grasse, picking flowers with his grandmother at dawn, enveloped in the world of fragrance. “My father,” he told a previous interviewer, “did not drink, eat or even read without bringing his nose to the drink, meal, book or particular object. For him, things existed through their smells. He also taught me the importance of listening and sharing.” You could say perfume was his destiny.

One has only to meet him on his home ground, in his “laboratory” – a modernist building a few steps away from his house, deep in a forest on the edge of Grasse – to get something of the measure of the man. He himself describes his surroundings as “austere”. Frédéric Malle, founder of the beautiful Frédéric Malle perfume library, explains part of his appeal: “When you talk to him he never shouts – and his perfumes are like that. He said he wanted to do fragrances that didn’t shout.” And they never do. In Grasse he is surrounded by nature, by pine trees, broom and lavender rather than by sumptuous floral plantings; but he is adamant that he doesn’t aim to “copy nature”, rather to transform it. He describes himself as “a pilferer, a thief, a scavenger of odours”. He is an alchemist, a sorcerer, conjuring up out of essential oils and aldehydes, fructones and isolates something wonderful and utterly modern. For it is his modernity, too, that marks him out. Though he describes his scents as “the poetry of memory”, he is insistent that nostalgia is not what he is about. “Perfume,” he writes in his monograph, Perfume, “is a product of society and, in this sense, is condemned to die if its myth and its memory are not maintained” – and yet, he emphasises, to be truly of its time, to be modern, it must also continually be renewed.

Whereas many perfumers use an organ of some 1,000 different materials, Ellena famously works with fewer than 200 ingredients. “I am,” he tells me with something approaching pride, “the nose who uses the fewest number of ingredients in the world.” For some of his perfumes he uses no more than 20 different ingredients, whereas most contain somewhere between 40 and 60 (though perfume fans might be interested to know that the shortest great perfume formula in the world belongs to Jacques Guerlain’s Mitsouko). His achievements are dazzling. He’s created well over 60 different perfumes, beginning in the humbler foothills of the perfume industry with companies such as Givaudan and L’Oréal. He created Sisley’s Eau de Campagne (£55 for 50ml) – a lovely, fresh, green scent that smells rather like newly mown grass – in 1974 when he was only 26.

However, he really made his mark internationally with First for Van Cleef & Arpels in 1976, when he was just 28 – an extraordinarily young age for a perfumer to create something that most experts, including Britain’s Roja Dove, see as one of the great perfume references of all time. It is a perfume created with some homage towards Edmond Roudnitska’s Femme (for Rochas). Roudnitska is one of Ellena’s great heroes: “He spoke of beauty, taste, simplicity, method, in smelling and judging, but also of erudition and of his philosophy… I imitated,” he writes, “the perfumes created by Edmond Roudnitksa.” For First, Ellena took an aldehydic floral (four different jasmines amongst a total of over 150 ingredients) and into it he injected a big dose of green notes, coming up with what Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez in their classic Perfumes: The Guide call one of the “full-figured French florals in the most high baroque style…” made “before [he] caught a severe case of minimalism and never recovered”.

Roudnitska, coincidentally, way back in 1951 created the first ever Hermès perfume, Eau d’Hermès, inspired by the smell of leather – a wonderfully simple but classy cologne for men. And just as Roudnitska, after creating for his wife Le Parfum de Thérèse (which Frédéric Malle now “publishes”), embarked on a journey towards minimalism, paring away as he went, seeking out the essence, so, too, did Ellena simplify as he grew, following in the master’s footsteps. Along the way he created some of the perfume world’s greats, with Bulgari’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (£47 for 75ml; a floral tea, inspired by his and his wife Susannah’s frequent visits to Mariage Frères and utterly innovative) being one of the most memorable and which Malle thinks is his greatest perfume. Here Ellena has arrived in full minimalist mode (it has a mere 20 different materials) and even Turin describes it as “a truly original, novel perfumery form, at once vivid and pale”.

For Frédéric Malle, Ellena created three perfumes – l’Eau d’Hiver, £80 for 50ml (“an elegiac, powdery, almonds-and-water accord that takes its place next to Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée and Caron’s Farnesiana among the fragrance Ophelias of this world,” says Turin); then Cologne Bigarade, £90 for 100ml – not a huge success (“I thought people would love his Cologne Bigarade,” says Malle, “but today people don’t like the diluted formulations because they aren’t used to splashing fragrances around; they prefer the concentrated version”) until he brought out his Bigarade Concentrée (£90 for 50ml), using extraordinary concentrations of bitter orange, which has been an enduring favourite. And finally there is Angéliques Sous la Pluie (£105 for 100ml), which Malle says is in some ways “quite imperfect – like a lightly drawn sketch… he was visiting a garden and after a shower smelled a leaf of angelica and was inspired by it”. Imperfect it may be, with just five notes – angelica, juniper berries, coriander, musk and cedar – but its fans love its limpid, luminous, watery quality.

These days, as the in-house “perfume composer” at Hermès, Ellena has transformed the financial fortunes of the perfume division. In 2004 the turnover at Hermès Parfums was €65m (though to be fair, the transformation had already been started by Eau des Merveilles, made in 2004 by Ralf Schwieger and Nathalie Feisthauer) and by 2010 it had grown to €138m, up some 17.4 per cent on 2009 alone.

Legend has it that the late Jean-Louis Dumas, chairman of Hermès from 1978 and the man who grew it into a world-class luxury-goods company, had compared the soaring success of Chanel’s perfumes under the direction of its in-house master perfumer, Jacques Polge, with Hermès’ own rather modest perfume sales. He decided that Hermès would follow Chanel’s strategy. Instead of turning to the independent perfume creators (Firmenich, Givaudan and their ilk) to develop one-off fragrances, it would appoint its own perfumer, asking him (or her) to develop a coherent collection that reflected the Hermès values of craftsmanship and quality. Ellena was already known to the company – Véronique Gautier, who was in charge of Hermès’ perfume division, had got to know him when she was at Cartier and he’d created the hugely successful Déclaration for Cartier (£43 for 50ml; a dry, woody accord of very elegant simplicity). After she joined Hermès, she asked Ellena to create a perfume called Un Jardin en Mediterranée (£55.50 for 50ml), based on the garden of Leïla Menchari, the director of displays for Hermès who owned a lush, scented haven in Tunisia. He wandered round the garden and became inspired by a jug of fresh lemonade perfumed with orange blossom and a serendipitous fig. To those notes Ellena added the smell of sea lilies, which flower in the sand, myrtle, white oleanders and cool foliage to bottle its essence – and Hermès found itself with one huge success on its hands.

Since then he has created a whole family of eaux for Hermès. There is the annual Jardin fragrance, an olfactory distillation of a specific and different location – green mangoes from the Nile, spices from Kerala, and for the latest, Un Jardin sur le Toit (£55.50 for 50ml), he was inspired by the rooftop garden above the Hermès store in Paris’s Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Then there are the Hermèssence fragrances (£150 for 100ml), which come only as eaux de toilettes. Hermès itself describes them as “sober and intense”, a collection of “olfactory poems [which] explore new fields of emotion through the noblest elements in perfumery”. There are some nine of them; esoteric, luxurious explorations of lavender, iris, amber, brasil wood, as well as foodie notes (hazelnut, rhubarb, pepper, black liquorice – Ellena always says that he “prefers salty and bitter to that which is sweetened”), which Ellena himself refers to as “his poems, his haikus”. These are not aimed at either sex, merely at those who will enjoy – and hopefully love – them. And then we shouldn’t forget the Parfums-Roman, fragrances based around literary stories of which the flinty Terre d’Hermès (£70 for 100ml) is one of his all-time bestsellers.

What persuaded him to join Hermès, he told me, was that Gautier understood how he wanted to work. “‘Let’s do it, you and me,’ I said to her. ‘Don’t go to focus groups, don’t test the product. Let us do what we think works.’” So at Hermès he has total creative control and doesn’t have to worry about marketing briefs or budgets. He makes what he wants to make, though acutely conscious of the ethos and world that Hermès stands for.

He is endlessly inventive. Just about to arrive (in the stores in November) is another masterpiece, his 10th in the Hermèssence collection, Santal Massoïa (£150 for 100ml). Here Ellena is transported to the Indonesian forests, to pungent odours emanating from exotic trees. Massoïa, a rare species whose bark smells of coconut, turns Santal Masssoïa into something esoteric, mysterious, unknown.

But whatever he does, which is both his limitation and his strength, there is this handwriting that the true fan always recognises. There is his refinement, his curious lightness and elegance of touch. Malle says that in the world of perfume they could be said to be what watercolours are in the world of art – delicate, simple, evocative, without the rich opulence of an oil painting. For some, his journey into minimalism has resulted in over-refinement. But those who love his work respond to its purity. Ellena says he likes to “put a touch of smile in my fragrances”, and he tells the Hermès salespeople that when they talk to customers it isn’t “about communicating recipes, it’s about relating a poem, a novella, a story”. For him, scent is a means of mysterious communication: “Perfume has its own syntax, its own grammar.” And through his perfumes he shares with us his life, in all its elegant, austere intensity.